How Literary Works Beowulf And The Wanderer Reflected On Past And Culture Of The Anglo-saxon World
The past is a very important part of Anglo-Saxon life. Their culture, inherited from the Germanic tribes when they invaded Britain in the 5th century, is centered on a warrior tradition that celebrates past deeds and victories (“Anglo-Saxon”). On the other hand, it frowns upon failure and evil acts. Unsurprisingly, Anglo-Saxon culture constantly references the past as their source of their background, their motivation, and – in particular – their pride.
An especially important aspect of the past is its role in story-telling. This is clearly shown in Anglo-Saxon literature, such as in the epic poem Beowulf and the epic poem The Wanderer, where the characters and the narrator use short stories and anecdotes to establish the nobility and reputation of both living characters and historical figures.
“If you walk the walk, you need to talk the talk” is a good summary of the Anglo-Saxon moral code. Boasting of one’s deeds and accomplishments is not only a common occurrence, it is behavior expected of and befitting lords and warriors. It is the main way through which one builds their reputation and gains the respect of their peers. Beowulf, the titular character of Beowulf, was undoubtedly a great and courageous hero, but without boasting, he would not be able to gain the respect and trust of the people that he meets.
For example, during his trip to Denmark to slay Grendel, he is not a very famous hero yet, and not many people know him by name. Thus, he has to brag about his past achievements to gain the faith and confidence of Hrothgar, saying that “my own people advised me, the best warriors and the wisest men, that I should, lord Hrothgar, seek you out, because they knew the might of my strength; they themselves had seen me, bloodstained from battle, come from the fight, when I captured five, slew a tribe of giants, and on the salt waves fought sea-monsters by night, survived that tight spot, avenged the Weder’s affliction – they asked for trouble! and crushed those grim foes” (Beowulf 415-424).
His vivid descriptions of his abilities and deeds helps satisfy Hrothgar and assure him that Beowulf is really capable of defeating Grendel. Later, Unferth tries to embarrass Beowulf by referencing a time when the latter lost a swimming contest to Breca and nearly died (Beowulf 505-527). Again, this shows that the warriors in Anglo-Saxon times base their own and others’ worth heavily on past accomplishments and failures. Unsurprisingly, Beowulf uses his past to rebuke Unferth, claiming that “I had greater strength on the sea [than Breca], more ordeals on the waves than any other man” (Beowulf 533-534). He continues to say that he was ambushed by sea monsters and brags that he “was able to kill nine of these sea-monsters. I have never heard of a harder night-battle under heaven’s vault, nor a more wretched man on the water’s stream; yet I escaped alive from the clutches of my enemies” (Beowulf 574-578).
Right from the beginning of the epic, readers are able to see clearly how much value and importance – and rightly so – is placed on one’s resume of heroic deeds. Along the same line, being able to properly brag about your resume is just as important. This habit of singing one’s own praises is not unique to the characters of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon literature. For instance, the first-person speaker in The Wanderer, although tired and lost, does not shy away from boasting about his past either, wistfully thinking about “how in his youth his gold-giving lord accustomed him to the feast (“The Wanderer” 35-36). The speaker in the The Wanderer clearly considers himself, even though he is exiled, to be of nobility because of his past deeds and relationship with his deceased king. Beowulf, The Wanderer, and other medieval texts reference the importance of remembering and honoring your past accomplishments, so it is justifiable to conclude that using one’s past to establish one’s reputation is a fairly common and popular theme in Anglo-Saxon culture.
The characters in Anglo-Saxon literature also seem to live in a constant shadow of the past. Their social standing and stature is not only related to their past feats but also largely attributed to their background and lineage. For example, in Beowulf, when Beowulf travels to meet Hrothgar, he is asked several times about where he is from – once by the coast guard and once by Wulfgar (Beowulf 257, 333-335). Of special interest is that these Danish warriors seem to be more interested in the foreigner’s background than who the foreigner actually is. In fact, instead of asking Beowulf what his name is, both the coast guard and Wulfgar instead ask about his background. The first demand that the coast guards makes is that “[Beowulf] must make clear from whence you have come” (Beowulf 257). Later, Wulfgar asks Beowulf’s group of men “from whence do you carry those covered shields, gray coats of mail and grim helmets, this troop of spears?” (Beowulf 333-335).
Obviously, in the Anglo-Saxon culture, someone’s family and tribe are much more useful gauges of worth than someone’s own identity. This does make sense, since, in those times, there is virtually no long distance communication, and the only basis for determining whether someone is friend or foe is through their background. Further perpetuating this trend, when Beowulf introduces himself to anyone, the first thing he says is that he is Hygelac’s kinsman or retainer. In fact, he does not even introduce himself personally nor tell his name to the coast guard and Hrothgar. He tells the coast guard that “we are men of the Geatish nation and Hygelac’s hearth-companions. My father was well-known among men, a noble commander named Ecgtheow; he saw many winters before he passed away, ancient, from the court, nearly everyone throughout the world remembers him well” (Beowulf 260-266). Later, when he meets Hrothgar, he introduces himself as “Hygelac’s kinsman and young retainer” (Beowulf 406-407).
Hrothgar already knows who he is, but even so, the more natural and expected introduction in the modern world would have been for Beowulf to introduce his own name. However, it is clear that in Anglo-Saxon culture, the most standard introductions are based around the reputation of one’s family and tribe – which is often built through tales and stories. Although The Wanderer does not go into as much detail, it is clear from the thoughts of the first-person narrator that his background and the people around him is an incredibly important part of his personality and self-worth. The first-person narrator sees that his lord is an essential part of him. Without his lord, he is lost, a common peasant. He describes how he misses “his dear lord’s beloved words of counsel” and how he dreams about better times when he “enjoyed the gift-throne” (“The Wanderer” 38, 44).
The importance of lineage is further highlighted in Beowulf’s argument with Unferth. Beowulf harshly criticizes Unferth killing his own brother, stating that “you became your brother’s killer, your next of kin; for that you needs must suffer punishment in hell, no matter how clever you are” (Beowulf 587-589). Through this argument, Beowulf essentially implies that, because of his wrongful deeds, Unferth does not have the authority to criticize anyone else, much less a noble hero like Beowulf – according to Beowulf (Beowulf 590- 606). Unferth’s past deeds are not recorded in books and computers; rather, it is passed on through stories, a point that demonstrates the importance of stories in defining the reputation of an Anglo-Saxon warrior. The fact that Beowulf uses this fact the undermine Unferth’s reputation and credibility is a testament to the emphasis and significance Anglo-Saxons placed both on one’s lineage and on one’s past deeds.
Story-telling and boasting about one’s past is an indispensable part of Anglo-Saxon culture and literature, because it is not just something people and characters do to gain respect. It is also a technique used by narrators to solidly and demonstratively establish the reputation of certain characters. Beowulf is littered with anecdotes about stories either in the past or in the future relative to the main plot. In fact, the epic starts with a short historical anecdote that introduces the audience to Scyld Scefing. The narrator tells the audience that “often Scyld Scefing seized the mead-benches from many tribes, troops of enemies, struck fear into earls. Though he first was found a waif, he awaited solace for that – he grew under heaven and prospered in honor until every one of the enricling nations over the whale’s riding had to obey him, grant him tribute. That was a good king!” (Beowulf 3-11).
Scyld Scefing (Leofwin2010). This YouTube audio clip is an Old English reading of the first section of the prologue of Beowulf describing Scyld Scefing (Beowulf 1-11). It helps show the mood of Beowulf as well as displaying a taste of what Old English is like.
Through this story, the narrator is able to show Scyld Scefing as a brave and good king, while also builds up the reputation of Hrothgar, a descendent of Scyld Scefing. Thus, the narrator is able to use the relationship between Hrothgar and a great and legendary king to further associate Hrothgar with the ideals of good and heroism. After all, family lineage is a highly valued aspect with Anglo-Saxon society, and being the direct descendent of a legendary king definitely increases your reputation and sway over other warriors.
On the flip side, the narrator of Beowulf also uses the relationship between a character and an entity that is well-defined and commonly associated with evil to further establish the characteristics of that character. He explains to us the background of Grendel and his relation with Cain, describing Grendel as “among Cain’s race” (Beowulf 107). In the bible, Cain killed his brother Abel; obviously, this is a horrible deed, and the narrator uses the association between Grendel and Cain to further highlight to Grendel’s evil and wicked nature.
The past is an important aspect in any society, but it plays an especially prominent role in Anglo-Saxon culture. We can see glimpses of this culture through medieval texts – such as Beowulf and The Wanderer – that reflect and exemplify some of these traditions. In particular, one important aspect of invoking the past involves telling stories to establish reputation. This story-telling tradition can be expressed in a variety of methods by both characters and narrators within medieval literature.
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